The Cat (and Hat) That Came to Stay; Seuss's Feline Still Has Good Fun That Is Funny, but an Annotated Edition Takes Him Seriously
Byline: Malcolm Jones
If you were to approach 100 people on the street and ask each one to recite from any narrative poem, the odds are that maybe one of them could get off a few lines of "Hiawatha" or "The Raven." But if you were to suggest that they could include the works of Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, the chances are that most born after 1950--or everyone with children--could get off not just a few lines but perhaps whole book-length poems. He is, without doubt, the best-known American narrative poet of the last half of the 20th century. And not just best-known: he's one of the best.
In "The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats," Philip Nel helps us understand just why Dr. Seuss has captured the imaginations of several generations of readers--and their parents. Nel's line-by-line analyses and explanations illuminate precisely how Seuss created his masterwork. We are treated to rough sketches and first drafts. We see the Cat's antecedents, especially the Katzenjammer Kids, Krazy Kat (more for Ignatz than Krazy) and Felix the Cat (for the bow tie). We get literary criticism and history: it took Seuss a year and a half to write and draw "Cat"--he once described the writing process as like "being lost with a witch in a tunnel of love." Not that Seuss minded hanging out with the bad guys--in fact, Nel says that the unconventional and subversive author identified most strongly with his most mischievous characters. After all, Seuss's license plate read grinch.
When "Cat" was finally published in 1957, it actually came out in two versions. The edition sold to the public took off immediately; in four years it sold 2 million copies. But the school version didn't sell nearly as well. Many reading teachers preferred the predictable stodginess of "See Spot Run," and refused to switch. Not that Seuss ever lacked defenders--and not all of them were in the second grade. One of the earliest was language maven Rudolf Flesch, the author of "Why Johnny Can't Read." But not even Flesch was able to explain the elusive, albeit obvious, charm of "The Cat in the Hat": "What exactly is it," he asked, "that makes this stuff immortal? …